Myra Melford has never been one to coast on past achievements, no matter how impressive they might be. In the nearly three decades she’s spent in the public eye, the accomplished piano improviser, composer, and bandleader has worked her way through a wide span of ensembles and projects, putting her poetic stamp on each while also responding vigorously and sympathetically to each setting, situation, and fellow musician. She’d named one of her most famous ensembles The Same River Twice, repurposing a famous Greek citation to evoke the futility of repetition and the continuous nature of change.
Of course, given her distinguished track record, it’s understandable that she might want to take stock and celebrate—and that’s exactly what Melford did in 2015, when she reconvened all of the bands she’d led since her initial breakthrough in 1990 for a weeklong retrospective at the Stone in New York City. That storied run at John Zorn’s East Village outpost – which found Melford working alongside Dave Douglas, Marty Ehrlich, Ben Goldberg, Chris Speed, Brandon Ross, Matt Wilson, and others – is now documented on a Blu-ray disc, 12 from 25, issued Nov. 2 by the vital New Haven record label Firehouse 12.
Yet unsurprisingly, Melford’s sights remain fixed on the horizon. Also out on Nov. 2 via Firehouse 12 is The Other Side of Air, the second release by her current working group, Snowy Egret, and a compelling showcase for her eloquently robust playing and imaginative writing. The band – which features trumpeter Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, acoustic bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey – celebrates the new album with a two-night engagement at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Nov. 7 and 8.
Speaking by telephone from her home in California’s Bay Area just after a whirlwind tour with flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Joëlle Léandre, Melford discussed her new album and video, the timely resonance of two more recent projects – Tiger Trio, the aforementioned group with Mitchell and Léandre, and MZM, her band with harpist Zeena Parkins and koto player Miya Masaoka – and projects still to come.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You originally assembled the Snowy Egret band in 2012 to work on a specific project, a set of pieces you wrote in response to the writing of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano in his Memory of Fire trilogy. What was different about making The Other Side of Air, given that this time you were writing for a specific group of players, as opposed to conceiving the music first and then assembling the players to help you bring it to life?
MYRA MELFORD: You know, I can’t say that I did x, y, or z, but it does change things when you know who you’re writing for. In the case of the Galeano, it was like, I really want to write something in response to this. And I did that, and then figured out who would be great to play it. In this case, I know what these guys can do, and as I’m creating the music now with them, I’m actually hearing them playing it. As opposed to writing something that’s purely motivated by my musical response to Galeano, now I’m thinking about who’s playing it, and their sound on their instrument, and how they like to improvise, and how I can feature that.
The band you assembled consists of five strong, distinctive, beautiful voices, none of whom could be mistaken for anybody else. It occurs to me that you’re not writing for a set of instruments, but instead orchestrating a set of specific players.
Right. I mean, I happen to like the instruments they play, and love this combination instrumentally. But that’s absolutely true… I hadn’t really thought about it, but it’s true: none of them can be mistaken for anybody else.
Stomu is so much more than a bass player: he gives you what you need at the low end of the range, but then there’s so much he offers higher up in counterpoint and melodic leads. And with Liberty it’s the same: he’s capable of giving you the lead-guitarist thing, but he’s also so skillful at really involved counterpoint and supportive, sympathetic… well, I was about to say comping, but it’s not really that at all. It’s always conversation.
Yes, yes. Everybody is fluid between that sense of background and foreground. The more we play together, the less I have to say when we get on the bandstand, because everybody is first and foremost listening to how the music is unfolding that night, rather than, “Oh, this is where I’m supposed to take a solo,” or “this is where I’m supposed to accompany,” that kind of stuff. We have a loose idea of that, but no one’s surprised if that doesn’t happen.
Ron Miles is an absolute most valuable player in any setting – in his own projects, of course, but in so many other things with Bill Frisell and so on. I don’t think he gets the attention and acclaim that he’s due, and I wonder if it’s because, like yourself, he’s outside of the NYC spotlight. Is the music scene still that New York City-centric?
That’s a good question. I’m not even sure what that means anymore, because I haven’t lived in New York since 2004, and Ron has never lived there to my knowledge. I don’t even think about it geographically anymore, except that we’re all from the United States.
I have another theory about Ron, which is what makes him an MVP, and that is that he always, always… and this is true for all these guys, but Ron really embodies this idea that he’s always putting the music first. It’s never about him featuring himself or taking a solo, even though he does that brilliantly when it feels like the right time for him to do that. But he is always coming up with, like Stomu and Liberty, very inventive ways of carrying on this sort of background conversation in response to whoever might be in the foreground.
I just heard him with Joshua Redman’s new project, Still Dreaming, and that band has evolved so much since I heard them do their first gig at the Jazz Standard. Those guys are all amazing, but I really hear Ron’s stamp on that music, because he just has this way of making it be about the music and changing things up. And it’s infectious, you know? People want to go with him.
There’s this interesting tension in that Tyshawn has gone to such lengths in his own creative output to assert that he’s not just a jazz drummer or jazz musician, quote-unquote, end sentence. Here, he’s performing the function of a jazz drummer within the context of your quintet, and doing it brilliantly. Yet I’d assume there are possibilities his presence makes available to you that are not so conventional.
Absolutely, and that’s why he’s an MVP for me. He is always thinking orchestrationally, he’s always thinking compositionally. I rarely have ever heard him repeat himself. And sometimes he startles us. I never have to say anything about what he’s playing. What he comes up with to play in any given context is always so musical and so appropriate to the music I’ve written, and yet so varied and creative and unique.
We move outside of the jazz vernacular quite a bit, and every single one of these guys is, is so comfortable with that, and can play sonically and can get interested in a kind of a new-music texture as opposed to a grooving kind of thing. And that’s so essential for my own vision and my own approach to playing.
As the composer for this particular killer ensemble, how much do you give them and how much do you expect them to bring on their own? I mean that literally: what do you actually put in front of them in the rehearsal room?
Well, you know, I’m giving them lots of notes – there’s lots of thoroughly notated stuff I’ll put in front of them in terms of what I think is essential about a given composition. And that varies greatly, of course, from piece to piece. What I don’t say very much about is what happens where I’m looking for improvisational material. If it’s coming out of a composed section, the assumption is that that will be their point of departure… so, relate to what comes before, or relate to what comes after. Occasionally I’ll say something like, I would rather you use noisy materials than pitch material here. I might say something like, I’d rather it be out of time than in time. Other times, wherever it wants to go is good with me, as long as it makes sense tying together the material that I’ve composed.
I ask because it’s a situation intrinsic to being a composer in a creative-music format. If you were writing a conventional string quartet, you’d put the notes on the page; you would give the dynamics and certain interpretive instructions like, say, dig in here, or play lightly here. You’ve basically told everybody what to do. But in this circumstance, you’re coming into a room with four other people who have their own perspectives and their own sets of skills and proclivities and life experiences, and you’re basically being courageous enough to open up your process and say, what are you going to bring to this?
As improvisers, that’s what we do, and that’s what we like to do. I hope I’m creating a situation that’s inspiring, and maybe calls for things that they haven’t done yet or haven’t expressed, but is also very welcoming for their own expression. That’s one of the things that struck me that was so inspiring about working with the Galeano: in a sense he retells or rewrites other people’s stories, but he’s making room in this particular trilogy, which is a history of the Americas, for so many different voices to come through. That struck me as a great analogy for how we work as composers for improvisers.
So I hear these guys’ voices as… it’s not that my music won’t work in other situations, and some of the music that I write for this band I have played with other groups or musicians. But first and foremost, I’m hearing it as a vehicle for their voices.
Speaking of influences, I understand that the music on The Other Side of Air was prompted in several cases by visual art; William Kentridge and Cy Twombly are cited. So could we talk about how the music on the new album came about?
I would say that this was a much looser kind of response than the Galeano, which was really very specific. In this case, I’d always been interested in Twombly, and had been recently introduced to Kentridge on a trip to South Africa, and was doing a lot of reading about them. In some cases my responses were more to ideas they were working with, rather than actual, specific works of art.
“Motion Stop Frame” was inspired by Kentridge’s beautifully hand-drawn animation. But again, here’s a place where I’m inspired by that, but I’m almost taking the words at face value and saying, I’m interested in a piece that would juxtapose forward momentum with moments of stasis, and this idea of slowing something down or stopping something to get a different perspective on it if it’s moving again.
“City of Illusion” was actually written in response to a drawing by Don Reich, a Sacramento-based artist who was a family friend. I wrote a series of pieces in response to his drawings on my solo record, Life Carries Me This Way, and “City of Illusion” was one that as soon as I started writing the music I heard Ron and Liberty, and so turned it into a piece for the quintet rather than putting it on the solo record. “Attic” was the same thing, but in that case I originally wrote and performed it as a solo piece on Life Carries Me This Way, and then orchestrated it for the band, and it changed a little bit.
“Chorale” was another piece I created for the band, for our week at the Village Vanguard, but it grew out of a piece that I performed with Ben Goldberg as a duet.
Is that something from the recent project you recorded with Ben, or something different?
It was around the same time. It’s something that I was working on for Snowy Egret, but realized it would also work well as a duo piece with Ben, and kind of workshopped it with Ben before I brought it to the quintet.
“Small Thoughts” was also a piece written for the Vanguard, more generally responding to something that I’d read about Cy Twombly. I was trying to work my way out of some of my habits. I’m always am trying to figure out how to come up with something that sounds fresh to me—which is not an easy thing, you know. I think we have certain ways as musicians that we tend to write, and certain kinds of phrasing. And I don’t think I can never get away from that, but coming at it from a new angle is always of interest to me. In this case, I created this sort of elaborate system of throwing the dice and coming up with a different rhythmic value for the different combinations of numbers.
This is the use of chance operations that’s referred to in the press release?
Exactly. It required some tweaking but basically the introduction to the piece is really just a way of creating counterpoint that’s based on these chance rhythms, and then the rest of the piece developed out of that.
“The Other Side of Air” is another one that was in response to something that I read by Kentridge. It’s in two parts, and the first part is much more open—I’m the only one who’s playing written music in the first part, and I asked them to respond minimally and with more texture and noise than pitch, but without any kind of strict restrictions. “The Other Side of Air” turned out to be this ballad that I was really happy with, but it wasn’t until I heard the band play it that it took on its full character. “Living Music” is something that I had done a very old and very different version of with Joseph Jarman and Leroy Jenkins in Equal Interest. I took what I felt was the strongest material from that, and orchestrated it for this band.
“Dried Print on Cardboard” was in response to a process that Cy Twombly was using to create some of his work. This was also a new process for me, in that I had composed this melodic material that kind of sounded too derivative of freebop. I really was trying to get away from that, and trying to figure out whether there was anything in this material that I felt good enough about to play with this band or put on a record. And I ended up cutting up… well, first I thought of a completely new underpinning for it, which is that bass line that Stomu and I play. And then I put everything in [composition software] Sibelius and cut it up and put it back together.
So this melody, it’s actually a lot of the same melodic material, but with a lot of space between the phrases, and this bass line recurs. But where I had to tweak either part in relation to the other to make it work harmonically, I did so, and I ended up being very, very happy with the piece. Half of this music we played for the first time on this recording, including that piece. And we’ve since found a lot of other interesting ways to open it up and play over it and use that material for improvisation. It’s turned out to be one of my favorite pieces, at the moment.
And then “Turn & Coda” was written, again, for the Vanguard. A lot of times what I do in terms of finding titles and allusions and ideas for pieces is reading about an artist’s process or about their work, and then writing down any phrase that they used that to me is poetic and suggestive of a way I might go about creating a piece of music. So “Turn & Coda” was another of these from Twombly, but it’s really more about a feeling I was trying to capture with that melodic material.
Having gone over the Snowy Egret album in such fantastic detail, I’d like to turn to your other new release: the Blu-ray video 12 from 25, which was culled from your 2015 Stone residency.
Basically, I was fortunate that pretty much all the original members of those bands – in some cases there were a few different people who played in them in various chairs – but I was able to get everybody who I’d ever played with over 25 years to do that music with me again, which was amazing. I really took it to heart; when John [Zorn] asked me to do it as a retrospective, I really did it. And that was a huge undertaking; I mean, in some cases I wasn’t able to find the original charts, going back to the early trio with Lindsey [Horner] and Reggie [Nicholson]. But I’m glad that I was able to put together a solid set of music from each of those projects, and in the case of The Same River Twice and Snowy Egret, two sets of music.
And thanks to Doris Duke, because I had recently gotten that Performing Artist Award, I was able to hire a film crew and really good sound engineers to document everything. As a result, originally I released one piece from each set on YouTube over the course of a summer; it was part of an audience development project that was funded by Doris Duke. I was so happy with it, and the filmmaker, who is an old friend of mine, had also made a short documentary about the week, and I just decided it would be nice to release the whole thing as a [Blu-ray] package, and [Firehouse 12 owner and engineer] Nick Lloyd was into it. It’s coming out the same day, on Nov. 2. The new Snowy Egret, the 12 from 25 disc, and finally a vinyl release of my solo project from 2013, Life Carries Me This Way on Firehouse 12—all three of those things are being released the same day.
Throughout your career you’ve assembled really strong bands with the finest players available—and a lot of those players have been men. But right now, in this moment when #MeToo is dominating headlines and we have journalists starting articles about major artists by saying women composers are quote-unquote “in vogue” right now, you’ve got not one but two different all-women projects, MZM and Tiger Trio. Is there any connection? Or is it just serendipity and chance that these projects are happening at a time when all this other buzz is afoot?
I would say it’s serendipity and chance, but I would also say that I’m aware that I have, for my own projects, in my own writing, been largely writing for ensembles of men primarily. But I have so many great women colleagues who I love to play with that it felt important to me… both of those projects, MZM and Tiger Trio, started when I was in residency at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 2013 to 2015. Doris Duke funded a residency to build demand for the arts. And part of what Yerba Buena asked me to do was help them reimagine their jazz and improvisational music programming in light of the fact that SF Jazz had their own center and was no longer putting on jazz concerts there. They felt this vacuum, but also this opportunity.
So when we got the funding, I sat down with the directors there and came up with a list of things we wanted to address. One was making sure we had programs and programming that served youth in the community from all different walks of life. The other was to really make sure that we featured a lot of women, but just not so much to call attention to it, per se. One of our intentions for the residency was to program a lot of women, but not so much to say “this is a women’s festival”—just matter of factly put all these women on there, because of course there are so many. Everybody should have a place to play, and it shouldn’t really be about a women’s thing anymore, right? We’re all human beings, and we’re all artists.
That was really something I felt strongly about, and I got to curate a bunch of stuff for them, including this New Frequencies Fest, which they do every year featuring mostly new music and world music. In this case, we did it all around jazz and improvisational music, and I made sure that we had over 50 percent women leaders and composers without ever calling attention to that in the press release.
They encouraged me to put together one project of my own to play on that. I had played with Nicole [Mitchell] a number of times in projects of hers. And then as U.C. professors, we’d done a few different things along with Mark Dresser and Michael Dessen. And once she joined the faculty at UC Irvine, I knew she was someone I wanted to work more with. And Joëlle [Léandre] I had met when I first moved out to the Bay Area. She at the time was a visiting professor at Mills [College]. I knew that the two of them had played, so it would seem like an obvious trio though we’d never played before as a trio and. And it was one of those things that clicked, so we’ve gone on to do more work, including quite a bit this fall.
And then with the other one, I was invited to put together an ensemble as a musical response to a play by Young Jean Lee [Untitled Feminist Show]. It was one that was very much about women and women’s bodies, so it made sense to have an all-women band. A couple of years earlier, we had George Lewis as a semester-long lecturer at Cal, and as part of that we put together a symposium on improvisational music in the music department. And I invited Miya [Masaoka], who was happened to be living out here at the time with him, and Zeena [Parkins], who at that point was subbing for Fred Frith at Mills, and I invited Nicole up, and the four of us did an improv concert and presentation on this symposium. And since Miya and Zeena were also frequently in the Bay Area, it made sense to invite them to do this concert in response to Young Jean Lee. That was another thing that really worked, and we went on to make a record and hopefully we’ll be doing some more touring.
All of this predated the hashtag #MeToo stuff, but it’s impossible to be a woman in this field in the world today and not be aware of this stuff, even before it becomes this big buzz thing. It’s always been on my mind. I’ve always put the music first, and always hired the people who were right. But in recent years it just became clear to me that it was important to make a statement. I’m still putting the music first, but also saying, it’s important to me to be playing with women.
You’re going to be creating a new series for or Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. Do you have a sense of what you’ll be going for there?
I’m not sure that I can actually name artists. When they came to me, the proposition was, we have all these great mainstream jazz artists that we love to present, but we also feel like it’s time we addressed jazz in the 21st century. Who do you recommend? So the two things that were most important to me were younger artists who maybe haven’t had a platform like that, or are just starting to get these larger platforms but the people out here don’t know very well. Just as I felt like things were start beginning to shift at Jazz at Lincoln Center, we’re starting to see some of that here at SF Jazz. But these institutions have been a little slower to catch on to some of this stuff, so I felt it was important to feature these younger up-and-coming musicians who are really moving the music forward and bringing it into the current times. And women, again—but again, not, not women exclusively, and not making a big deal about it, but just making sure we have some parity there.
As you pointed out earlier, you’ve been in California since 2004. I think there’s still this lingering notion that jazz happens in New York or it doesn’t happen; it’s off the radar and you have to prove yourself in New York. But in listening to you talk about your music and the people you’re playing with and your activities with Yerba Buena and UC Berkeley and your teaching, you’ve found a viable way to sustain a creative career without going through the haggling and poverty that one is confronted with in New York, even now in the 21st century. Does the life that you’ve created for yourself out there meet, exceed, or change your expectations?
Well, I’ve had several thoughts while you were talking. I did go through that whole thing in New York; I was there 20 years, and I think that was incredibly valuable for me. It’s where I made my connections. Being immersed in that creative energy there and then having the opportunities to start and develop my career there were invaluable. And then to be able to take what I got there, bring it to a new place, hopefully bring something of value here—so there’s an exchange with what I’m getting by now having this other platform, a place to teach. Just financially, it’s been really helpful for me to have a teaching position for obvious reasons. But it’s almost like the financial opportunity that being out here has has helped my career grow even more. It’s interesting, I haven’t felt like I’ve missed out. Creatively and in terms of production and everything, this has been a very, very nourishing and supportive environment for me. But I think a lot of that was based on he foundation that I was able to create through my time in New York.
It’s almost like New York still serves as kind of a crucible to refine for yourself who it is that you’re going to be, but then once you’ve discovered who you are, you can take that anywhere.
Yes. Hopefully. I mean, certainly I believe that, but I could look at a colleague like Nicole Mitchell and say, well, she never really lived in New York, and look how she’s doing. So I don’t think you have to go to New York. And I think increasingly as it’s becoming difficult to live there, certainly hard for young people to be able to even afford to be there…although those who need to be there will find a way. I hadn’t thought about that. But I think things are becoming decentralized, and there’s a vital scene in Chicago and a vital scene out here.
One thing that’s difficult about here is for all the wealth concentrated in the Bay Area, not enough of it supports young artists—but that’s another issue. I just feel like I found as I moved out and other colleagues of mine moved out to take teaching positions around the country, they were all finding a way to keep going and keep playing with each other. It feels less important to me now that one has to spend a long period of time in New York. I still feel it’s important to present my music there and I like to come back there. But I do feel like slowly some of that is really becoming decentralized.
I’m curious specifically about the students that you meet in your day-to-day work as an educator, and what their attitude and awareness and desire are in terms of – again the, the j-word – the creative-music tradition. Are you still encountering students who are deeply impassioned to take that route?
Well, first of all it may be helpful to point out that UC Berkeley does not have a performance program right now. The number of students who want to go on and have a career performing jazz and improvisational music when they come through as undergrads is fairly small, compared to students that end up at a conservatory program. In a lot of the students I have encountered a certain amount of concern among undergraduates about how they’re going to earn a living, and many of them have the skill and talent and capability to have a career in one thing and hopefully keep their music going. So I’ve encountered an awful lot of that. But I see that those who are really driven to be a performer and are finding ways to do it.
Several of my students have gotten down to Cal Arts for graduate school, and it occurs to me that the fact that someone like Steve Lehman has moved out there is this part of this whole thing, this sort of very slow decentralization. I feel like he’s creating a scene for these young players, and giving them the kinds of opportunities or at least the education that they might have gotten had they moved to New York 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. And I see that happening in Seattle with Cuong Vu. I see it happening at UCSD with Mark Dresser, and with Nicole and Michael Dessen at UC Irvine now. I’m starting to see more of this happening, especially the further away from the East Coast you go.
I also do a lot of work with graduate students. Most of our graduate students have been straight composers, but we’re now starting to have more composer-performer-improvisers in our graduate program, and a lot of them are interested in going off to Berlin or working in Paris. They’re all, I think, realizing they have got to make a scene happen, rather than go someplace where there’s already a scene. I see a lot of that happening. It’s very practical, but it’s also very creative and imaginative, and they have the drive to do that. So that’s kind of where I see the future happening.
Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret performs at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center, on Nov. 7 and 8 at 7:30 and 9:30pm; jazz.org